In 1604 a pretender to the Russian throne appeared, positioning himself as a rival to the man who was already claiming it for his own, Boris Godunov. This pretender began to impersonate Ivan’s son and so was called the “false Dmitri”. This false Dmitri succeeded in gaining military assistance from Poland in exchange for promises of territory. The false Dmitri eventually invaded Russia where he soon received the welcome assistance of the Cossack armies. The false Dmitri faced a weak opponent in Boris Godunov, who had not nearly the military support to match him. Following Godunov’s , the official leadership of Russia fell into the hands of his son, Feodor II.
The false Dmitri soon had conquered Moscow and was actually able to get the real Dmitri’s mother-the widow of Ivan-to officially recognize him as the true heir to the Russian throne. Backed by the force of the Cossack army, Dmitri placed himself as the legitimate Tsar of Russia. His reign, however, would be brief, although he proved himself quite capable of administering the government and quickly set about instituting the reforms that the Cossacks had so heartily desired. Dmitri lowered taxes, raised wages and reformed the status of the serfs.
Unfortunately, in doing so Dmitri also alienated the powerful boyars through his very public disdain of Russian customs and traditions. Further undermining his rule was his consistently insulting behavior toward the Russian Patriarch, which was traditionally with a level of respect typically awarded only to the Pope. As a result, the boyars plotted against Dmitri, eventually murdering him and replacing him with a handpicked Tsar of their own, Prince Shuisky.
It didn’t take long for the Cossacks to begin mapping out a counter-revenge plot, going in search of yet another pretender. More than one person campaigned for the position before a “second Dmitri” was finally selected in 1608. In a repeat of history that is almost too surreal to be real-and that would only be allowed in a comedic film and not a dramatic one-this second pretender succeeded in once again securing the power of the Poles and the Cossack armies, and once again launched an invasion into Russia, whereupon he was received-believe it or not-into the bed of the widow of the first false Dmitri as her legal husband, secretly marrying him after consumation.
Facing the very real threat of usurpation by this second false Dmitri, Shuisky turned to Sweden for support to stem the tide of the invasion. The result was a civil war in which boyar fought against boyar and Cossack fought against Cossack. The second false Dmitri was no match for the first one, however, and failed to capitalize on the opportunities presented by civil war. He failed in his attempts to conquer Moscow; worse, his troops resorted to pillaging the country and therefore discredited the entire revolution. He was eventually murdered in 1610.
The civil war soon starkly divided into two distinct interests. The Polish faction was led by King Sigismund who was looking to secure the Russian crown for himself. Sigismund had the support of the lower nobility and the merchant class at first, then later by just the high boyars. The other faction was a combination of two different groups: a nationalist movement aided by the Orthodox Patriarch, and a social movement supported by the Cossacks who were still seeking economic reform. Since Prince Shuisky offered nothing of substance to either of these groups, he was deposed and banished in 1610, leaving the Russian throne vacant.
With the deposition and banishment of the Tsar, the Polish army incurred all the way into Moscow, embarking upon a devastating route that left cities in flames behind them as they settled into the Kremlin. They also lay siege upon the Trinity Monastery which still somehow managed to fend them off for over a year under the leadership of the Patriarch. This proved to be a catastrophic mistake in judgment for the Poles, however; the assault upon the Russian religion as well as the Russian state resulted in the oppositional forces banding together with a single purpose. The ultimate result was that the idealistic revolutionary aims of the Cossacks were defeated, but the national interest was saved.
An oppositional triumvirate of boyars, noblemen and Cossacks formed in an attempt to rally all those national forces, however it was not successful in bringing the more radical factions into camp due to the publishing of several decrees that were seen to primarily benefit the service nobility, while utterly disregarding the interests of those who favored free land reform. Perhaps even more detrimental to the triumvirate was its failure to effectively deal with the interests of international interventionists, including the Swedes who had captured Novgorod for themselves.
In 1611 a new attempt was made by church leaders and the more radically conservative members of the population. This attempt resulted in the creation of a national army to be organized in the northeastern provinces which had remain unoccupied. This army succeeded in drawing a wider swath of participants than the original triumvirate and so could successfully march toward Moscow. As it did so, it won the support of the more moderate factions that had originally supported the triumvirate. This provided for an exceptionally strong force as it began to push its way toward the Kremlin.
As if the Poles had not done enough to destroy the support they desperately needed to fend off this assault, they compounded the horror by stupidly starving the Patriarch to death. This ill-advised course of action resulted in a reversal of fortune for them as the invading army held them at siege until they too were starving and weakened. By the end of 1612 Moscow and the Kremlin were in the hands of the national army.
Although Russia was saved from Polish domination, the effect on the revolutionary struggle was utter defeat. Due to the many defections of the Cossacks, their strength and influence was severely weakened and they were forced to retreat to Astrakhan. With the collapse of the Cossack army, the revolutionary zeal of the peasants had nothing to back them up. The expulsion of the Poles, whom they had relied upon to back their efforts to instill a self-appointed Tsar, significantly reduced their influence in the political sphere.